TIPPING. In a country where you can’t pop out for a loaf of bread without having to compensate a local car guard outside the store, it’s almost become a dirty word.

The cup holder in my car — which ideally should house a steaming caffé latte daily — is instead reserved for loose change; those R2 and R5 coins vital to navigating the daily exchanges so unique to suburban South Africa. From petrol attendants and security guards to checkout packers and trolley pushers, there’s a price to be paid.

And it’s made worse by being unsure how much to give. Handing over R2 just seems pointless; R5 doesn’t feel much better. But when you start dishing out R10 at a time, grabbing some milk and a Lotto ticket at the local cafe suddenly becomes a pricey trip.

Then there’s the pizza delivery man, the beauty therapist and the woman who washes your hair at the salon, all expecting some kind of reward.

Tipping in restaurants is usually more straightforward; you rate the service and tip accordingly. Most of us are guided by that unwritten 10% rule for decent, but uneventful, service, with better and memorable service securing more. Of course, there are no fixed rules because, as with most things involving giving away your money, it’s a personal thing.

Which is why restaurant patron Marisa Crowe took offence recently when she received her bill at M Squared restaurant at Carreira Centre in Randburg, Johannesburg.

On the face of it, the R40.90 bill for two coffees and a Danish pastry was run-of-the-mill. A bit like the service.

But when Crowe looked a bit closer, she spotted an unusual service charge guide.

Below the total amount, was written: 10% service: R4.09; 12% good service: R4.91; 15% excellent service: R6.13.

“My friend was most upset about the audacity of telling us what percentage to tip!” said Crowe.

 “How about tipping whatever you want? Am I correct in assuming this is indeed presumptuous?”

Well, is it? Or is it, as the owner of the bakery, coffee shop and pizzeria contends, helpful to customers who would rather not have to work out the tip amount themselves.

Tipping in restaurants is usually more straightforward; you rate the service and tip accordingly. Most of us are guided by that unwritten 10% rule for decent, but uneventful, service, with better and memorable service securing more. Of course, there are no fixed rules because, as with most things involving giving away your money, it’s a personal thing.

I suppose a lot depends on whether you’re mathematically challenged (like me) or not. I quite like the idea of having the amount already worked out for me. But I get Crowe’s irritation at the assumption that good service demands 12% and excellent service 15%. Since when?

One person’s idea of excellent service is not necessarily another’s.

Owner Richard Walsh inherited the system when he took over three months ago.

“I haven’t had any problem with this; the only comments have been positive ... customers felt it made it very easy as they did not have to calculate [tips] themselves,” said Walsh.

Following the complaint, Walsh canvassed his customers, who said they saw nothing wrong with the system.

“All of them were really surprised that the subject had even been raised; some used the term ludicrous,” he said.

 “Some had never noticed it before despite being long-time regulars, while others were quite happy with it.”

But isn’t it indeed a tad presumptuous?

“It’s merely a suggestion, and customers tip as they please,” said Walsh.

 “It gives my waiters a target to aim for, and also acts as a reminder to customers that the service charge is not included.”

So what’s the differentiator between service, good service and excellent service?

“It is hard for me to be objective as I am a business owner within the food industry, and I have also worked as a waiter both in South Africa and overseas.

“As a customer I want my waiter to be attentive without being intrusive. They should be able to anticipate my needs, and be familiar with both the menu and the specials.

“Most importantly they should be aware of kitchen shortages, and if there is something which is a problem, they must inform me immediately, not 10 minutes later so that everyone’s food arrives separately.”

Despite the tipping guide, the average tip at M Squared remains 10%. Walsh puts this down to a large number of regulars being pensioners on a tight budget.

“Other clients usually tip according to service levels, with people who have worked as waiters before tending to be more generous as they understand the job.”

Walsh’s “most complimented waiter” earned a generous R60 tip on a R121 meal this month for “exceptional service”. If the customer had stuck to the eatery’s suggested percentage for excellence, the waiter would’ve earned R18.15.

Walsh said the tip guide was not unique; he’d spotted similar bills at eateries in Woodmead and Sandton.

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